Every so often a college football season comes along that seems likely to offer a bit too much for all of the poll-takers, headline writers, All-America selectors, Heisman voters and bowl officials, not to forget the millions who pay their way into the stadiums. Such a season is 1968, which can aptly be called the year of plenty. Seldom in the past has so much been expected from so many teams, and it has been years since there has been such a profusion of preseason immortals ready to show that their achievements of last autumn were merely samples of their true talents, which they will now display in full.
The primary reason for the fan enthusiasm is that an abnormal number of teams that were strong in 1967 have an unusual number of regulars returning. College football, like wine, has good years and bad. There are cycles in such things. For instance, last year's crop of seniors was very ordinary. Just ask a pro scout. This year's is extraordinary. Just ask a coach who has to send his boys against such seniors as USC's O. J. Simpson, Purdue's Leroy Keyes, Notre Dame's Terry Hanratty and Texas' Chris Gilbert.
The abundance both of established talent and individual stars on a national scale is overwhelming. For example, such teams as Oklahoma, Penn State, Oregon State, Texas, Purdue, Florida, Ohio State, Indiana, LSU and Texas A&M have seven or eight starters back on offense and just about as many on defense. In some cases whole backfields return, as at USC, where Simpson runs, and Purdue, where Keyes does everything, and at Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon State, Texas A&M and Indiana.
The kings for the season are going to be the running backs. Seven of last year's 10 leading rushers return, each having sprinted, slashed or lurched for more than 1,000 yards, a figure that is a big deal in leaner times. Not only did Simpson and Gilbert gain more than 1,000 in 1967, so did Houston's Paul Gipson, Michigan's Ron Johnson, Clemson's Buddy Gore, East Carolina's Butch Colson and West Texas State's Eugene Morris. Not on the 1,000-yard list, but at least as dangerous, are the brilliant Keyes and such other notable returnees as Florida's Larry Smith, Oregon State's Bill Enyart, Oklahoma's Steve Owens, Army's Charlie Jarvis and Mississippi's Steve Hindman.
A profusion of quarterbacks has returned, too, but with the exception of Notre Dame's Hanratty, they are of a workmanlike type that accomplishes a great deal without catching the headlines. Three of them pass frequently: Purdue's Mike Phipps (left), Texas A&M's Edd Hargett and Kansas' Bob Douglass. But others are mostly runners: Oklahoma's Bob Warmack, Texas' Bill Bradley, Colorado's Bob Anderson, Oregon State's Steve Preece and Indiana's Harry Gonso. All, however, are proven performers, which means the efficiency of their team increases, and so does the quality of play.
Just when it has so much talent to show off, college football has come up with a rule change that will result in the spectator seeing more of this talent in action under exciting conditions. The clock will be stopped now after every first down. This means far more than the fact that games obviously will last longer. A team trailing by no more than a touchdown or field goal near the end of a game now will be able to squeeze in several more plays if it can keep a drive going by making first downs. Those long, sustained drives on the ground will not consume as much playing time. Best of all, a team that has used its time-outs and is racing the clock will not have to waste a down throwing an intentional incomplete pass in order to halt the second hand. It could gamble on a run for a first down, since the clock will stop if the first down is made. In turn, the defense must now guard against the run—which increases the chance for a successful pass. The entire last-minute strategy of the game will be affected, primarily in favor of a running team.
Two other rules changes are important, though they may not be noticed. The punt-return rule that was tried last year—interior linemen could not start covering until the ball was kicked—has been ditched, mainly because it did not make punt returns any more interesting. And the numbering of players finally will be specific. Backs must be numbered between 1 and 49, interior linemen from 50 to 79 and ends from 80 to 99.
Unfortunately, there could be a period during the season when all will not be fun and excitement. There is a chance that black athletes may continue to feel the unrest that many evidenced last winter and spring when numerous colleges were faced with boycott threats, and there is talk in the Midwest that some expression of sympathy with any Olympic boycott or protest might be taken by Negro football players. What form? It could range from skipping a day's workout to not playing for the Old Dogwood Crock. It could be timed to have the worst possible effect or the least. And it could make a shambles of the national championship fight. One thing is certain. Never have coaches been more aware of the problem, and never have more programs been initiated to solve the black athlete's grievances.
In this year of plenty, what teams will provide their followers with the richest excitement and the most frequent glow of victory? On the following pages are scouting reports on the Top 20, as selected by the editors of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, as well as assessments of the have-lesses and have-nots, a report on the small colleges and some sophomores who will be worth watching.